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Irish Tenor Dennis Day, Comic Foil for Jack Benny, Dead At Age 71

June 24, 1988 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Dennis Day, the Irish tenor best known as Jack Benny’s comic sidekick, was remembered Thursday as a loving man devoted to helping himself and others battle Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Day, whose trademarks were the line ″Gee, Mr. Benny″ and skits in which he tricked the comedian into letting him unleash his singing voice, died at 71 late Wednesday night at his Bel Air Estates home.

He had never fully recovered from a fall 3 1/2 months ago, and returned home after treatment this week at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. The cause of death was pneumonia, said his mother-in-law, Margaret Almquist.

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″I’m very, very saddened by Dennis’ death,″ said comedian Jerry Lewis, national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which Day worked. ″He was a great friend - to me and to so many during his life. When he found out that he had ALS - the disease that led inexorably to his death - he put all the remaining energy he had into helping MDA fight this tragic disorder.″

Doctors discovered last summer that Day had amyotropic lateral sclerosis, the nerve disorder known as Lou Gehrig’s disease that causes gradual loss of muscle control. He injured his head in the fall March 9 and had been hospitalized more than four weeks since then, at times in critical condition.

Day’s wife and Mrs. Almquist’s daughter, Peggy Margaret McNulty, was admitted to St. John’s on Wednesday for cardiac tests and was in fair condition Thursday, hospital spokesman Armen Markarian said. He added that doctors had not determined whether she suffered a heart attack.

Day played a dimwitted stooge on Benny’s radio and TV variety shows, but he was shrewd in his contract maneuvering with studios and networks.

″I’m sorry about Dennis. I thought he was one of a kind,″ said Milton Berle, who knew Day for 40 years. ″Through the tutorage of my pal, Jack Benny, he became a very good foil and straight man character for Jack. Show business is going to miss him.″

″He was a great actor and great comedian and a great foil for Jack Benny. He was the crazy kid who did the silly things. They got along very well together,″ said Irving Fein, Benny’s former manager who now manages George Burns.

Day was also recalled as a family man who chose to spend time with his 10 children rather than running with a Hollywood crowd.

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″Warm, wonderful, loving, caring, always giving,″ is how actress Ann Blyth remembered her brother-in-law. The star of ″Mildred Pierce,″ ″Kismet″ and ″The Helen Morgan Story″ is married to Day’s brother, James McNulty, and recalled the large family get-togethers with their five children and Day’s 10.

″Our family get-togethers were indeed warm and wonderful memories to have,″ Miss Blyth said. ″To lose someone so dear is indeed a great loss, but when you have lovely memories, it somehow makes it easier.″

″Americans couldn’t do any better for the likes of a role-model husband and father than Dennis Day,″ added Ralph Edwards, host of the old ″This is Your Life″ and ″Truth or Consequences″ shows.

Born Owen Patrick McNulty to Irish parents in New York City on May 21, 1917, he was graduated from St. Patrick’s Cathedral High School and attended Manhattan College with plans to enter Fordham’s law school.

But then he learned Benny needed a singer to replace Kenny Baker. A recording Day had made earned him an audition, and an off-the-cuff wisecrack helped land him the job.

He assumed the name Dennis Day when he joined Benny’s radio show as a singer in 1939.

″Gee, Mr. Benny 3/8″ became a trademark line on Benny’s radio and TV variety shows. The remark came from Day when a skit situation seemed to overwhelm him.

Besides his success as a foil, Day gained popularity as an Irish tenor with his renditions of ″Danny Boy,″ ″McNamara’s Band,″ ″Clancy Lowered the Boom,″ and other ballads. Another Day favorite, ″Peg of my Heart″ was a ballad he sang for his wife.

Benny and Day began appearing on TV in 1950, and in 1951 Day landed a movie contract with 20th-Century Fox. At the time, he was the only Fox contract player with television rights. He also signed a contract with NBC, after allowing weeks of bidding between the network and competitor CBS.

Day is survived by his wife, a brother, six sons, four daughters, and 13 grandchildren. Funeral services are planned next week, depending on Mrs. McNulty’s health.